Mile News

Aquinas grad and two-time U.S. Olympian Dick Buerkle dies at age 72

June 22, 2020

The story of his performance at Maryland in 1978 when he set the indoor Mile world record was the stuff of legend.

By Sal Maiorana, Rochester Democrat & Chronicle

Rochester native Dick Buerkle, who at one time held the world indoor Mile recorde and twice qualified for the United States Olympic team, died Monday morning. He was 72.

Buerkle graduated from Aquinas Institute in 1966, having competed for the Little Irish track team only his senior year. He went on to Villanova University and performed as a non-scholarship athlete for two track seasons before finally earning a scholarship in his junior year.

During his time in college he was a three-time NCAA All-American who finished third at three NCAA finals: The 1969 and 1970 indoor 2 Mile race and at the 1970 outdoor 3 Mile.

Known for his bald head long before that look became chic – he lost all his hair by the age of 12, and doctors never knew why – he became a star runner on the national track circuit, though he remained an amateur.

While he achieved fame for his 1978 world record time in the Mile, between 1970 and 1981 Buerkle was ranked among the top 10 Americans at the 5000 meter distance seven times and was #1 in the U.S. in 1974, #4 in the world.

That was the distance at which he competed in the Olympics. He did not make the 1972 team that went to Munich, but he won the 1976 U.S. Olympic Trials to earn his spot in the Summer Games at Montreal.

By that time had moved to Buffalo and was working for Bausch & Lomb as a contact lens salesman. At Montreal, he ran a disappointing ninth in the 5000m heat and did not get to race in the final.

Buerkle also qualified for the United States team in 1980, but never got to compete because President Jimmy Carter boycotted those Games in Moscow in protest of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.

It was in between those two Olympiads, on Jan. 13, 1978 at the CYO Invitational held at Cole Field House on the campus of the University of Maryland, when Buerkle broke the indoor Mile world record with a time of 3:54.93, defeating heavy favorite Filbert Bayi.

The story of his performance at Maryland in 1978 when he set the indoor Mile world record was the stuff of legend.

In a Sports Illustrated cover story, Buerkle recalled that the race was to be held on Friday the 13th. It was a typically miserably cold and snowy week in Buffalo and Buerkle was slipping and sliding as he pounded the icy pavement around the streets of his Kenmore home.

He asked for permission from Joe Figliola, who at that time was the director of Memorial Auditorium, home of the Buffalo Sabres, to run its hallways, and it was granted. He put in 10 miles one day running around the corridors of the Aud, but then had to go out of town for Bausch & Lomb and continued his training outdoors for a couple days in Pennsylvania.

When it was time to fly to Maryland, his 12:30pm flight from Buffalo on the day of the race was cancelled. He was able to re-book on a 4:00pm plane bound for Washington, DC which somehow was able to take off, and he got to the campus in College Park at 7:30.

“I’ve got to be crazy to fly out in a snowstorm on Friday the 13th to try for a world record,” he said to Sports Illustrated.

At first he wasn’t allowed into the arena because even though he’d been a 1976 Olympian the man at the gate didn’t recognize him, so a meet official had to intervene. Buerkle was able to get in a quick warm up, then took his place in the starters’ block at 9:05.

Less than four minutes later, the 5-foot-7, 130-pounder was a world record-holder, a title he maintained until January 1979 when Ireland’s Eamonn Coghlan shaved more than two seconds off Buerkle’s mark.

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Tags: legend (90) , dick buerkle (5)

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